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NGOs in Gaza: humanitarianism vs politics

Hugo Slim
30 January 2009

The Israel-Palestine conflict is striking for the intense emotions that it generates. These encompass not just the people directly involved on both sides but outsiders, especially in the western world - from cyber-activists waging a "virtual' war in the blogosphere and comment-forums to NGOs, civil-society movements and international humanitarian agencies.


Hugo Slim is the author of Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War (C Hurst and Columbia University Press, 2007)

This distinguishes the Israel-Palestine conflict from most other wars around the world. The discussion of armed conflicts, famines and repression elsewhere - Darfur, northern Uganda, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Tibet, Burma, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), among other places - seldom rouses such emotions or provokes so many people (including those from the international humanitarian and NGO community) to take to the streets.

This is worth noting because the death-toll in a number of wars around the world since the 1990s alone is much, much higher and the attitude of their belligerents to killing civilians is much, much worse than that in Israel-Palestine. International civil society cares deeply about these other vicious armed conflicts and disasters. It expends enormous effort and resources on trying to publicise them and organise aid for their victims. But the Israel-Palestine conflict, as is evident in the 2008-09 war over Gaza, seems to evoke a disproportionate degree of outrage.

Such impassioned engagement raises the important issue of the relationship between humanitarian and political action, and the question of how it is observed in practice. Many people in the humanitarian world have strong political views on this particular conflict. This can be a problem insofar as impartiality is the guiding star of practical humanitarian work. The principle of impartiality requires that all humanitarian agencies "act in proportion to need alone". They should not "see" race, colour, or politics; nor should they choose what is easiest, closest and most high-profile. They must see and act only on the basis of the greatest need.


Among openDemocracy's articles on the Gaza conflict of 2008-09

:Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Mary Robinson, "A crisis of dignity in Gaza" (13 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Martin Shaw, "Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

This professional obligation is increasingly compromised by the trend for modern NGOs to bend complex political realities into a classic liberal schema of righteous victim and malevolent oppressor. This satisfying trope can then allow self-mandated civil-society groups to use their aura of humanitarian impartiality to promote a partisan attitude. NGOs tend to do this wherever they are; but some humanitarian workers find it hard to maintain standards of professional independence where the Palestinians in particular are concerned. 

Taking sides

This can be illustrated from a couple of my own encounters as a former NGO worker. During the first Palestinian intifada (1987-93), I found myself becoming suspicious of some European NGO workers in East Jerusalem who refused "to go west" into the Israeli part of the city, and made a conspicuous point of boycotting Israeli goods. In a visit during the second intifada which began in 2000, I listened at a private dinner to a number of United Nations people expressing the hope that the state of Israel "would only last another fifty years at most". In other parts of the world, NGO workers often long for the end of a particular regime or dictator; but only in the Israel-Palestine conflict have I heard them longing for the end of a state.

This "taking sides" is one indication of the blindspots that can be at work among those charged with assisting the victims of this conflict. Another is the way that NGO critiques of the conduct of violence in this region can employ a double-standard. People who adopt a pro-Palestinian standpoint, and express particular revulsion at Israeli conduct in Gaza or in earlier military campaigns, frequently overlook Palestinian ideology, choices and behaviour.

Public condemnation of Palestinian violence against Israelis by many NGOs and United Nations workers often has a routine aspect, as if it is something they "have" to do. Many representatives seem deep down to feel that this violence is an inevitable and understandable expression of "desperation". Internecine violence among Palestinians is also mistakenly understood as the tragic consequence of a factionalism produced by occupation.

The narrative, strategy and feuds of Palestinian nationalism too often go unexamined by outside supporters and "solidarists" with the Palestinian cause. But, like all nationalisms, Palestinian nationalism is constructed, contested, enriched by myth and not a little faked. Why not treat it with the same rigorous examination that every other case of nationalism receives?

This failure of scrutiny can extend to the use of violence by Palestinian resistance and liberation movements. A lot of this violence is politically misguided, illegal and narcissistic. But many western supporters (including those in the aid community) more often exculpate or even indulge it. There is a similar lack of critical attention to the abominable articles in the Hamas movement's charter that are clearly racist and exterminatory. Any equivalent sentiments found (for example) in Sudanese government documents or the pronouncements of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda would be eagerly denounced by international NGOs. The attitude to Hamas is different: its words are understood as relics of an earlier phase of the organisation which it has now outgrown, or the forgivable hyperbole of an oppressed resistance movement.

The tragedy of this misguided support is that it does the cause of Palestinian autonomy so little good. Arguably, Palestinian politics is overly dependent on outside solidarity, sympathy and gifts. More "solidarity" is the last thing the Palestinians need because it reinforces a sort of "rentier politics" dominated by small cliques - something that does nothing to cultivate broad-based power and agency.

The interesting thing about the slow emergence of Hamas and its eventual election victory in January 2006 was that the movement dearly wanted to do away with such dependency and its associated corruption. During the first intifada I observed health and education projects run by several Hamas supporters who were profoundly committed to the rights, social improvement and self-sufficiency of their people. Two decades on, many still are. But Hamas's continuous commitment to violence and the annihilation of Israel has made them dependent on a network of outside patrons whose support is too often guided by mixed messages and dubious motives.

A choice of visions

There is now a great need for comfort, repair and reconstruction in the aftermath of the Israeli attacks. But the Palestinian people of Gaza have rich friends such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia (who are already launching a fund that could soon top $2 billion) as well as western backers such as the European Union and the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid).

In this context, and in light of the above, western humanitarian agencies should think hard about whether their presence in Gaza is because they have a real humanitarian role to play there or whether they are there in solidarity. If Arab states are able to provide for Gaza's reconstruction - in stark contrast to their poor record in Darfur - then it is arguable that aid agencies in Britain and other European countries might find that need is greatest at present in DR Congo or Sri Lanka.

Humanitarian agencies need to use all the practical skill and political insight that they apply in many other wars to decide what it is best to do in Gaza. The majority of British NGOs appealing via the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for funds to help Gaza - such as Oxfam, Care, and Save the Children - are multi-mandate agencies. They serve a wider vision of a just society and so are more than "just" humanitarian agencies. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF) alone are solely humanitarian. Theirs is a single, immediate mandate. They are interested in protecting, healing and caring for the wounded and the destitute. Most NGOs have a wider, long-term goal of creating liberal and democratic societies. If this is a part of their goal in Gaza then they should make this clear to the public as they raise funds. They should probably also tell Hamas, which may not entirely share their vision.

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